Mercury and the Kaituma River

Last Monday, the Guyana Water Inc (GWI) made the startling revelation that the mercury content of the Kaituma River was tested and found to be too high for consumption by the residents of the Region One community. Alternative sources of water supply have now been put in place.

The water utility says samples were taken from the Kaituma River and sent to the Kaizen Environmental Services Laboratory in Trinidad where it tested positive for mercury beyond the safe limit set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The discovery of the mercury level was made in May 2018 and GWI said it took the decision to cease pumping the water to residents.

At a press conference on Wednesday, GWI Managing Director Dr Richard Van West-Charles stated that the results have shown mercury levels of 0.016mg/L, which is more than the accepted WHO 0.006mg/L standard.  He added that they are currently taking samples from other areas upstream and downstream in Port Kaituma and will also be testing fish from the area.

GWI says that once the results have returned it will work with the Ministry of Natural Resources and  the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) “to take a strong stance on mining activities here”.

GWI’s disclosure immediately raises the question as to who should be testing the country’s waterways and particularly those sensitive to mining effluent and turbidity to determine water quality. Furthermore, there should have been an immediate disclosure by GWI of the mercury levels in the Kaituma River so that residents could be forewarned and the authorities could be alerted to begin taking remedial action. It would seem that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the premier responsibility in the area of testing in conjunction with the GGMC which has the mandate to ensure that mining operations are in strict compliance with the law and regulations addressing matters such as mercury processing.

Despite its sweeping mandate, the public has no idea about what work, if any, has been done or is being done by the EPA in mining areas and other sectors where there is a risk of injury to the environment. Except for routine environmental impact assessment hearings, the occasional training seminar or some type of ceremonial event, the EPA is hardly heard from. This would be a suitable occasion for it to explain to the public what it has been doing to discharge its mandate of protecting the environment in areas where mining is endemic and why it is that GWI has had to make a public disclosure of the levels of this toxic metal in a northwest river. Similarly, the GGMC should also explain what it has been doing to ensure the safe use of mercury in northwest mining areas and whether its testing of the waters had verified this.

Since the appearance of a news item in Stabroek News reporting the GWI findings, both the EPA and the GGMC have said that they will be co-operating to establish the facts on the ground. It is important that the waters of the Kaituma be retested immediately by these agencies to ascertain the levels of mercury.

The health of the residents of these areas is at risk from the indiscriminate use of mercury in mining areas and they benefit minimally from agencies like the EPA – which should be in full preparation mode for the oil industry – and the GGMC which should be working to ensure they are not exposed to hazardous conditions. While the concentrations found by GWI might have diminished through the natural flow of the river, this should not dissuade the authorities from intensively probing what is going on in the water course. The habitats of the Kaituma River and its creeks should be examined for signs of mercury poisoning. The Konawaruk River remains a testament to the ravages of environmental pollution on its vitality and why it is important to prevent this happening elsewhere.

The reports about the Kaituma River come amid the heightened sensitivity surrounding mercury contamination from the processing of gold amalgam by the Guyana Gold Board (GGB) at the GGMC headquarters on Brickdam. The GGB lab has been relocated but concerns remain particularly as to whether several deaths among GGMC workers in recent months had anything to do with elevated levels of the toxic mercury in their blood.

With Guyana being a signatory to the Minamata Convention on the elimination of mercury use, the onus is now on the government and its regulatory authorities to ascertain and publicize what steps have been taken to ensure the safe use of mercury in mining operations and just as important, what technologies have been pioneered as substitutes to mercury and their penetration of the industry.

In October last year, President Granger recommitted Guyana to eliminating the use of mercury by 2027. Addressing the High-level Side Event of the 1st Conference of parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury in Geneva, Switzerland on September 28, the President said “Mercury is not a plaything. It is harmful to human health and to the physical environment whether in the air, on land or in water. The use of mercury, in human products and processes, is a threat to human health and the environment”.

He added that “Guyana reaffirms its commitment to the implementation of the Minamata Convention.  My country set itself the goal of reducing mercury emissions by 55 per cent within the next five years…”

Several years back, shaker tables had been tried but these were seen to be costly and applicable only to larger gold mining operations, leaving small scale miners without viable options to mercury and ever-growing concerns that they are not abiding by best practices. There is a vital role also for the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association to continue educating its members on the plan to end mercury use in mining areas and to popularise the better alternatives to mercury.

The detection of hazardous levels of mercury in the Kaituma River should be taken as a call to action by the authorities.  

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